The Meaning of Life: It Could Be Just a Quirk—or Quark—of Consciousness

Is science destined to crack the code of consciousness—and how would we even go about it?

Max Tegmark: Of all the words I know there’s no word that makes many of my colleagues more emotional and prone to foam at the mouth than the one I’m just about to say: consciousness. A lot of scientists dismiss this as complete BS and as totally irrelevant and a lot of others think this is the central thing—you have to worry about machines getting conscious and so on. What do I think? I think consciousness is both irrelevant and incredibly important. Let me explain why.

First of all, if you are chased by a heat-seeking missile it’s completely irrelevant to you whether this heat-seeking missile is conscious, whether it’s having a subjective experience, whether it feels like anything to be that heat-seeking missile, because all you care about is what the heat-seeking missile does, not how it feels. That shows that it’s a complete red herring to think that you’re safe from future AI if it’s not conscious. It’s its behavior you want to make sure is aligned with your goals.

On the other hand there is a way in which consciousness is incredibly important, I feel, and there’s also a way in which it’s absolutely fascinating. If we rewind 400 years or so, Galileo, he could’ve told you that if you throw an apple and a hazelnut they’re going to move exactly in this shape of a parabola and he can give you all the math for it, but he would have no clue why the apple was red and the hazelnut was brown or why the apple was soft and the hazelnut was hard. That seemed to him beyond science, and science back 400 years ago could only really say sensible things about this very limited domain of phenomenon to do with motion. Then came Maxwell's equations which told us all about light and colors and that became within the realm of science. Then we got to quantum mechanics, which told us why the apple is softer than the hazelnut and all the other properties of matter, and science has gradually conquered more and more of the natural phenomenon. And if you ask now what science can do it’s actually a lot faster to describe what little it is that science cannot talk about sensibly. And I think the final frontier actually is consciousness. People mean a lot of different things by that word, I simply mean subjective experience, the experience of colors, sounds, emotions and so on, that it feels like something to be me, which is quite separate from my behavior, which I could have even if I were a zombie and didn’t experience anything at all, potentially.

So why should you care about that? I care about it first of all because fundamentally that’s the basic thing we know about the world: my experiences, and I would love to understand scientifically why that is and not just leave it to philosophers. And second, it’s incredibly important also in terms of purpose and meaning. In the laws of physics there is nothing about meaning, there’s no equation for it and I feel that we shouldn’t look for our universe to give meaning to us because it’s us who give meaning to our universe because we are conscious and experiencing things. Our universe didn’t used to be conscious, it used to be just a bunch of stuff moving around and gradually these incredibly complicated patterns got arranged into our brains and we woke up and now our universe is aware of itself. We have galaxies out there that are incredibly beautiful. Why are they beautiful? Because we are consciously aware of them. We see them in our telescopes. If in the future we screw up with technology and all life goes extinct, then our universe will go back to being meaningless and just a giant waste of space, as far as I’m concerned. And when a colleague tells me they think consciousness is BS, I challenge them to tell me what is wrong with rape and torture, and I ask them to explain that to me without using the word consciousness or the word experience. Because if they can’t talk about that, it’s just the whole thing they are saying is so bad is just a bunch of electrons and quarks moving around in some particular way rather than some other particular way, and what’s so bad about that?

I feel the only way we can actually have any logical, scientific foundation of ethics, morality, purpose and meaning is precisely in terms of experience, in terms of consciousness. And this makes it really important, as we prepare for our future, to understand what this is. And I for one think that this is actually something that we can also ultimately understand scientifically. I don’t think that the difference between a living bug and a dead bug is that the living bug has some sort of secret life source in it; I think of the bugs as mechanisms and the dead bug is just a broken mechanism. Similarly I think what makes my brain conscious, but the food I ate, which got rearranged into my brain, wasn’t conscious, isn’t because they’re made of different kind of stuff; it’s the same quarks, rearranged, right? It’s the pattern into which they’re arranged. And I think it’s a scientific question: what properties does this pattern of information processing have to have for there to be a subjective experience there? You could imagine building a brain scanner—actually we have a pretty good ones at MIT where I work—and having some software in it which tests out whatever theory you have for consciousness and makes predictions for what you experience. And if I’m sitting in this machine and the computer screen tells me, okay right now I see information processing in your brain indicating that you are consciously aware of the thought of an apple. I’m like, yeah that’s right, correct. And then it says, I see information about your heartbeat in your brain and you’re aware of this. And I’m like, no I was not conscious of that. Now I’ve ruled out the theory that was implemented in the software, so it’s falsifiable, that means it was a scientific theory.

If we can one day find a theory like this, and there are some candidates on the market like Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory, for example, if we ever find any theory that keeps passing tests like that and we start taking it seriously and we can use it to build a consciousness detector, that's first of all going to be really useful. Physicians in the emergency room would love it if they get an unresponsive patient coming in, put them in the consciousness scanner and figure out whether they have locked-in syndrome and just can’t communicate but they're conscious, or whether there’s nobody home. And this will also let us understand whether future AI systems we build are conscious and whether we should feel guilty or not about switching them off. Some people might prefer that their future home-helper robot is an unconscious zombie so they don't have to feel guilty about giving it boring chores or powering it down. Some people might prefer that it’s conscious so that it can be a positive experience in there and so that they don’t feel creeped out by this machine just faking it and pretending to be conscious even though it’s a zombie. And most importantly, in the longer-term future, if far from now we have life that spreads out from Earth to other galaxies and the whole cosmos is alive and doing amazing things, if this life becomes the descendants of humanity, wouldn’t it suck if it turns out that this is all just zombies with no consciousness and the whole thing that we felt so good about before we passed away was just a play for empty benches? I feel that we should really, really tackle this final frontier of scientific ignorance, the problem of consciousness, and get this stuff figured out so we can shape a future which is truly awesome—not just from the outside that cool stuff seems to be happening, but that there’s actually someone home to experience all this. 

In the centuries since Galileo proved heliocentrism, science has gradually come to understand more and more of our universe's natural phenomena: gravity, quantum mechanics, even ripples in space-time. But the final frontier of science isn't out there, says cosmologist and MIT professor Max Tegmark, it's the world inside our heads: consciousness. It's a highly divisive issue—some scientists think it's unimportant or a question for philosophers, while others like Tegmark think that the human experience and the meaning and purpose of life would disappear if the lights of our consciousness were to go out. Ultimately, Tegmark thinks we can understand consciousness scientifically by finding the pattern of matter from which consciousness springs. What is the difference between your brain and the food you feed it? It's all quarks, says Tegmark, the difference is the pattern they're arranged into. So how can we develop a theory of consciousness? Can we build a consciousness detector? And can we really understand what we are without unlocking humanity's greatest mystery? Tegmark muses on all of this above. Max's latest book is Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

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New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

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